5 Keys for Contending in the Western Conference

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If their actions this summer are any indication, the Calgary Flames believe that they can contend in 2017-18. They augmented their young core of forwards and their mobile defensemen with the additions of Travis Hamonic, Mike Smith and Eddie Lack this summer in an effort to shore up their roster. However, the Flames’ dreams of contention are not guaranteed.

Mike Smith

New Flames goaltender Mike Smith. (Photo: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Here are five things that need to happen for the Flames to contend in the West in 2017-18.

A Better Start

The Flames weren’t very good in October 2016. They had the obvious growing pains and adjustments to make under new head coach Glen Gulutzan, but their stumble out of the gates put them behind the eight-ball in the very competitive Western Conference. They were a flat 4-6-1 in October and a woeful 6-10-1 by mid-November. What’s lost in the hubbub of 2016-17’s success is that the Flames were pretty bad in October 2015, too, going just 3-8-1 in that month. They cannot let bad Octobers become a trend if they hope to capture the Pacific Division crown and make some playoff noise.

More Consistent Goaltending

The Flames had a pair of new goaltenders in 2016-17 in the form of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. Inconsistency between their two netminders led to Gulutzan handing the net to one goalie or the other throughout the season:

  • Elliott was ice-cold in October and November, so the net went to Johnson.
  • Johnson was hot in November and December, then cooled off quickly.
  • Elliott and Johnson alternated throughout January and February.
  • Elliott got hot in March and April, taking over the net until the playoffs.

Their netminding was a lot better than it had been in previous years under Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller, but the peaks and valleys were arguably even more pronounced than in the past. The Flames just need pretty good goaltending all the time from Mike Smith and Eddie Lack, with minimal variation, if they’re going to be a contender.

Figuring Out Sam Bennett

Sam Bennett Calgary Flames

Calgary Flames center Sam Bennett (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Flames selected Bennett at fourth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft and he’s their highest-ever selection in a draft. He’s been a pro for a couple seasons already, but he’s wobbled between being used as a left wing and as a center. As a winger, he’s shown drive and offensive creativity. As a center, he’s still very much a work in progress and arguably needs to have strong two-way wingers with him to carry the defensive load a bit. If the Flames are going to make noise, they need to figure out how they want to use Bennett early in the season and make the necessary adjustments around that decision-making. Another season of trying to figure Bennett’s role out could disrupt the balance in the team’s lineup.

Another Step Forward for Matthew Tkachuk

Tkachuk had a superb first season in the NHL, playing primarily on the left side of Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. In a rookie class punctuated with names like Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, Tkachuk more than held his own as he became cemented as one of the top young 200-foot players in the NHL and one of the league’s premier pests. If the Flames are going to take a step forward, the 3M Line will have to be even better – and that means Tkachuk will have to take a step towards being as offensively potent as the aforementioned Matthews and Laine.

Figuring Out The Right Side

The Flames were a team of pairs in 2016-17, with the exception of the establishment of the 3M Line. But Sean Monahan played mostly with Johnny Gaudreau and Bennett fit in nicely with Kris Versteeg, leaving some questions about who becomes the right wing on those two lines. Will it be young Curtis Lazar, seeking to establish himself? Will it be veteran Troy Brouwer, desperately needing a bounce-back season after a disappointing first campaign in Calgary? Does Micheal Ferland slot into either of those spots after a strong finish to the season alongside Gaudreau and Monahan? Finding some clarity on roles and slotting on that right side of their lineup will go a long way towards cementing some roster stability and potentially giving the Flames three dangerous scoring lines.



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